BUFORD — The team poster hanging on the wall outside Buford coach Gene Durden’s office tells a year’s worth of storyline in only two words.
Since suffering a devastating 48-45 loss to St. Pius X in the 2014 Class AAA state championship game, Buford’s girls basketball team has been locked in on a single goal: get back to the state final and, this time, win it. The top-ranked Lady Wolves (29-3) have completed the bulk of the journey toward that dream, but the last and most important leg of their trip comes at 7 p.m. today against fifth-ranked Carrollton (25-7) in the Class AAAA state championship game at the Macon Coliseum in Macon.
“The girls really, last year, were brokenhearted because ... we felt like we had a great opportunity that we kind of let slip away,” Durden said.
“They have said it from the end of that (championship) game (last year), ‘Coach, we’ve got unfinished business and we’re going to be focused on getting back to the state championship and winning the state championship.’ ... There can’t be but (one of) two teams to win it, us or Carrollton, so they’ve put themselves in that situation.”
Buford enters tonight’s game riding a 21-game winning streak — the Lady Wolves’ last defeat came Dec. 29 against Southeast Raleigh (N.C.) — despite a year chocked full of challenges that included the loss of three players to season-ending injuries, two of them before the season even began.
One of the few constants for the Lady Wolves this year has been their ability to pull out victories using vastly different methods of production from one game to another.
Buford’s offense proved capable of lighting up the scoreboard late in the season, topping the 80-point mark three times during a four-game stretch.
Yet, three days after crushing Monroe Area 85-27 in the opening round of the Region 8-AAAA tournament, Buford was forced to rely on its defense to grind past Chestatee 26-10 in the region title game. The Lady Wolves led that contest 7-3 at the half.
“Coach Durden has this analogy where he says, ‘When you get to the big dance, you have to know different dances and different styles of dancing,’” senior Corey Staples said.
“I feel like that’s applied to this entire season. We’ve had different ways that we’ve had to win. We’ve had to grind it out some games, we’ve had to press really hard (in others), so I think it’s really going to help us when it comes to the state championship game.”
Durden gives Staples and the team’s four other seniors much of the credit for how far the Lady Wolves have come this season.
The group is led by N.C. State signee Camille Anderson, who poured in 33 points in the Lady Wolves’ 59-55 revenge win over St. Pius X in the state quarterfinals last week. That performance was more than double her team-high average of almost 16 points per game this season, but necessary to overcome a 40-point effort by Asia Durr, the No. 1 player in the country.
While Anderson most often headlines Buford’s stat sheet, Durden said each of his seniors bring an important component to the team.
“It’s been a unique and special group of seniors because they are so varied in their personalities and so varied in how they conduct themselves,” Durden said.
“Corey (Staples) lends an unbelievable blend of athleticism and energy, Lane Crawford is very serious and a steady worker, Nyse Bruce is our best communicator that really does a good job of leading by example and doing a lot of little things, and Katy Bisges also is a senior that lends her unique ability of being able to score to do a lot of things that don’t show up on a stat sheet.”
Bisges, who came to Buford from Napa Valley, Calif., two years ago, pointed to Buford’s 54-53 win over Wesleyan on Dec. 12 as an important confidence booster and turning point in the season after a shaky beginning. At the time, the Lady Wolves were out to a 4-2 start and coming off of back-to-back losses. Sophomore Zikaya Wright delivered 18 points and nine rebounds in the victory.
Another performance like that from one of Buford’s role players could go a long way toward clinching a title.
“I’ve had probably five to six players who have had their career (best) game (this year),” Durden said. “A great example, Zikaya Wright against Wesleyan.
“You’re never going to have everybody play their best game (at the same time), it’s just not going to happen, but we’d really like to have a situation where we have four kids step up and play very, very well (in the championship game) and not shoulder the burden on just one person. That’s been one of the strengths of this team, when someone is not playing really well, somebody else steps up.”
Durden describes Carrollton, which boasts a 10-game winning streak of its own, as a fundamentally sound team with the ability to score from the perimeter and in the paint. Emily Waters, the Lady Trojans’ 6-foot-2 junior post, anchors the inside game, while senior point guard Alecia North has the ability to slash and penetrate opposing defenses.
The Buford coach believes rebounding is almost always one of the most important aspects of big games and said it will be key for the Lady Wolves to limit Carrollton to a single shot per possession, while earning their own second- and third-chance scoring opportunities after misses on the other end of the floor.
“Every day we’ve been getting better during practice,” Bisges said. “We’ve been focusing on doing our defense better (and) executing better, because the three things that coach Durden always preaches about winning a state championship is rebounding, half-court offense and half-court defense.”
Buford has lost in the state championship game twice in the last three years after winning three consecutive titles from 2009-11. Those experiences have led Durden to try to instill a sense of urgency in his players.
The Lady Wolves have earned a chance to replace the disappointment they felt a year ago with euphoria, to finish their unfinished business, but in a game like this, every moment counts.
“Like I tell them in the locker room, there are no do-overs now,” Durden said. “If you don’t bring it, you’ll go home and talk about what you should have done.
“Hopefully (tonight after the game), we’ll be able to talk about what we did, not what we should have done.”